Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa

An Islamic Perspective on Women’s Dress
July 13, 2015
Algeria Bans Domestic Abuse
July 15, 2015

As the societies of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) undertake the difficult process of enacting social and political change, the unequal status of women stands out as a particularly formidable obstacle. The Gulf region, and the Middle East as a whole, is not the only region of the world where women experience inequality. It is in the Gulf, however, that the gap between the rights of men and those of women has been most clear and substantial. Women in the region are significantly underrepresented in senior positions in politics and the private sector, and in some countries they are completely absent from the judiciary. Perhaps most visibly, women face gender-based discrimination in personal status laws, which regulate marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and other aspects of family life. Family laws in most of the region declare that the husband is the head of the family, give the husband power over his wife’s right to work and travel, and in some instances specifically require the wife to obey her husband. Domestic violence also remains a significant problem.

Important steps, however, have been taken in each country over the last five years to improve the status of women. Since 2003, women have become more visible participants in public life, education, and business in all of the Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia. In Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, reform is driven in large part by the strong grassroots efforts of women’s rights activists, lawyers, and journalists. An earlier push to improve the quality of women’s education, combined with the growing presence of women in the workplace, has prompted an increasing number of women to demand greater rights in other spheres of life, including politics and family. In nearly all of the countries examined, however, progress is stymied by the lack of democratic institutions, an independent judiciary, and freedom of association and assembly. The lack of research and data on women’s status further impedes the advocacy efforts of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and activists. And ultimately, the passage of new laws that guarantee equal rights for women means little if those guarantees are not fully enforced by state authorities. Throughout the region, persistent patriarchal attitudes, prejudice, and the traditional leanings of male judges threaten to undermine these new legal protections.

In the 2005 edition of Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa, Freedom House identified a complex set of obstacles that were preventing women from enjoying the full range of political, civil, economic, and legal rights. While most of those problems remain, this study and the accompanying data demonstrate that several important gains have been made in recent years. The effects of these changes on women and their rights cannot go unnoticed. In nearly all countries, women today are better represented in the labor force and play a more prominent role in the workplace than was the case five years ago. The growing number of working women appears to be the result of increased literacy and educational opportunities, slowly changing cultural attitudes, and government policies aimed at reducing dependence on foreign labor. Whether married or not, working women say that they have started to earn greater respect and have a greater voice within their families because they are contributing financial support. Government policies designed to reduce dependence on foreign labor in most of the Gulf have led companies to start aggressively recruiting women to fill newly established quotas for citizen employees. Nevertheless, many women complain of difficulty in advancing beyond entry-level positions despite their qualifications and job performance, leading to a popular perception that they were hired only to satisfy the government quotas. Throughout the region, very few women are found in upper management and executive positions, arguably due to cultural perceptions that women are less capable, more irrational, and better suited for family responsibilities. Women throughout the region earn less than men despite labor laws that mandate equal pay for the same type of work and equal opportunities for training and promotion. While such laws are essential, they are frequently violated in terms of salary and employment perks like housing allowances or loans for senior officials.

Although women are generally encouraged to study in traditionally female disciplines such as education and health care, they have started entering new fields, including engineering and science. Yet despite these improvements, there are still many barriers to true gender equality in education. In Kuwait and Oman, women are required to achieve higher grade-point averages (GPAs) to enroll to certain disciplines at the university level. Moreover, in most countries examined, universities largely remain segregated by gender.

The MENA region as a whole, are exceptional in their array of laws, practices, and customs that pose major obstacles to the protection of women and the punishment of abusers. Physical abuse is generally prohibited, but no country in the Gulf region offers specific protections against domestic violence or spousal rape. Other factors include a lack of government accountability, a lack of official protection of rights inside the home, and social stigmas that pertain to female victims rather than the perpetrators. Many women feel that they cannot discuss their personal situation without damaging their family honor and their own reputation. Consequently, abused women rarely attempt to file complaints with the police. When they do choose to seek police protection, they frequently encounter officers who are reluctant to get involved in what is perceived as a family matter and who encourage reconciliation rather than legal action.

On a political level, although women remain severely underrepresented in political and leadership roles, their increased visibility in public life could help to change cultures in which only men are seen as leaders and decision-makers. Working from outside the government, women’s advocates in several countries have been able to lobby for expanded rights more effectively in recent years, despite persistent restrictions on freedom of association. However, throughout the region, restrictions on civic organizations represent one of the main impediments to the expansion of women’s rights, since activists are unable to organize and voice their demands without fear of persecution.

Regardless of constitutional guarantees, women throughout the region face legal forms of discrimination that are systematic and pervade every aspect of life. For example, in none of the Gulf countries do women enjoy the same citizenship and nationality rights as men, which can carry serious consequences for the choice of a marriage partner. Under such laws, a man can marry a foreign woman with the knowledge that his spouse can become a citizen and receive the associated benefits. By contrast, a woman who marries a foreigner cannot pass her citizenship to her spouse or her children. Children from such marriages must acquire special residency permits, renewable annually, in order to attend public school, qualify for university scholarships, and find employment. Apart from citizenship, women also face gender-based restrictions in labor laws, can legally be denied employment in certain occupations, and are discriminated against in labor benefits and pension laws. However, gender inequality is most evident in personal-status codes, which relegate women to an inferior position within marriage and the family, declare the husband to be the head of household, and in many cases require the wife to obey her husband. Furthermore, women need a guardian’s signature or presence in order to complete marriage proceedings, limiting their free choice of a marriage partner. Although the new laws contain certain provisions granting women additional rights and are viewed as a positive development, many clauses simply codify preexisting inequalities. Several other legal changes over the last five years, if properly implemented, have the potential to improve women’s rights. For example, laws requiring women to obtain permission from their guardians in order to travel were rescinded in Bahrain and Qatar. In Oman, the government introduced a law in 2008 stipulating that men’s and women’s court testimony would be considered equal, although it is unclear to what extent this will apply to personal-status cases. Throughout the region, however, the prevailing patriarchal attitudes, prejudice, and traditional leanings of male judges, lawyers, and court officials—as well as the lack of an independent judiciary that is capable of upholding basic rights despite political or societal pressure—threaten to undermine these new legal protections. Moreover, unless the judicial system of each country becomes more independent, rigorous, and professional, women of high social standing will continue to have better access to justice than poor women and domestic workers.